You Can Never Go Down the Drain

Mister Rogers occasionally sang a song that went "You can never go down, Can never go down, Can never go down the drain" as part of reassuring his young audience they need not fear the bathtub drain. I don't recall ever having that fear as a little one, and neither of my little ones have ever feared getting sucked down in the gentle tide of the draining tub, but I recall an episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" where Rogers sat on the edge of a bathtub and calmly explained that people were too big to go down the drain.

That's a good word. As I said, I don't know what it's like to feel afraid of the bathtub drain, but I can imagine what it's like to be a small child watching the spiral of water over a mysterious hole and worrying it might take him down too. It's an irrational fear, but an understandable one. It was wise of Mr. Rogers to tell children that, despite appearances, they can never go down the drain. It just can't happen.

Do you remember the story of Joseph and his brothers? You probably remember the part about the flashy coat and all that, but if you fast forward through all that -- after Joseph's jealous brothers throw him in a pit, then sell him into slavery, tell their father Jacob that wild animals ate Joseph, enter into a severe famine, become ignorant of all of Joseph's travails in Egypt, wind up in front of Joseph (unbeknownst to them) to beg for food, and have to go back to their father and tell him they're supposed to return to Egypt with their youngest brother Benjamin -- Jacob reflects on all that has befallen his family and says something like "Everything's against me!"

I don't know about you, but I've been there, done that, and threw away the T-shirt a few years ago. The weight of the world comes crashing down, and I just want to throw up my hands and say "I give up." Maybe you've been there too. There's a lot of people living a lot of lives in the world; the potential for pain and suffering and trials and tribulations is infinite. We've got financial problems, health problems, career problems, relationship problems, personal problems.
Maybe you feel like you can't catch a break. Maybe you're at the bottom of a pit so deep you can't even see the light at the opening. Maybe you've been there so long, you've lost all hope you'll ever get out. Maybe the tide has swept you up, you've been waving your arms for help to no avail, and you just know it's a matter of time before the downward spiral drowns you.

Don't lose hope. Don't give up.

You know Jacob, the old man who moaned "Everything's against me"? His son Jospeh, who he'd given up for dead, really did have everything against him. His own brothers try to kill him, then sell him to slave traders. He ends up in wasting away in a prison for years because of the lies of a seductress he refused to be seduced by. And after all that mess he was later able to stand before the very people who started the whole downward spiral and forgive them. He was able to say "You meant all this for evil, but God meant it for good."

Look, just 'cause you're paranoid, doesn't mean nobody's out to get you. There's some people who are in intense pain, both physical and emotional, right now, and it's pain that has gone on for years and years and will probably go on for years and years. I don't mean to be a Debbie Downer, but not everybody gets that super-magical TBN-powered spiritual pixie dust that makes you rich and healthy because you "trust in Jeeeeeezus." The strongest Christians are the ones who are hurting and have been hurting and keep trusting Jesus and will keep trusting Jesus even if their hurt never goes away. That doesn't sell books, I know, but it's the truth. God is omnipresent, right? So while he's perfectly capable of delivering you from your pain and suffering, he's also capable of redeeming you in and through your pain and suffering.

Know this: You cannot go down the drain.
You are in your Father's hand, and nobody -- not even yourself -- can take you out of there. There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God. Nothing. Zip, zilch, nada. No thing and no person can do it. All things work to the good of those who are called according to His purposes. Who's called according to His purposes? If you are a believer in Jesus, you are. So what things work to the good? All things. Not just some things. All things.

This world may be in the proverbial handbasket. It may be circling the drain. Our bodies are indeed winding down. (And more than a few of us have bodies widening downward. ;-) But our help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. Our redeemer lives. And one day, he will descend with a shout, and this old earth will get an extreme makeover in an eternal splash of glory the likes of which will make the aurora borealis look like a Lite Brite. And our sagging flesh and aching bones and slowing hearts and diseased cells will be taken from us, and we'll get fresh legs, a freshly purified heart, fresh lungs to breathe the fresh air of the new heaven and the new earth. We'll get fresh eyes to finally see Him face to face.

Child of God, you have been rescued once. And it was a promise of glory to come. So someday you will be rescued again in such a way you may laugh at all the things that make you cry today. Your anguish over this world and your hurt from your experience in it will become joy over the new world and the worshipful pleasure it brings.

The great thing is that we can taste that joy now, in the midst of our sins and sufferings. We have a mighty God who is strong to save, and He loves us so such. If the birds and the flowers are under his care, how much more do you think he cares about you and me? Most of us know Jesus cried out from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?". But many of us don't know Jesus was quoting Psalm 22. Go read it.
Do you see that it's not a psalm about God forsaking anyone? It's actually about God delivering his people. Kinda puts Christ's lament in a more reassuring context, doesn't it? Here's verse 24:
For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help.

Wherever you are, whatever you're going through and may go through (perhaps for the rest of your life), know that your salvation lay not in your circumstances or situations, but believe that God is strong to save, and that even his Son suffered torture and death to achieve it for you. You do not hurt alone. Your road may be hard, but despite where it appears to be leading, it is the road to glory. God's will for you will not be disappointment or destruction. The "everything against you" is working toward your good. You will stand renewed, redeemed, and ready to prevail at the last day.
Whatever it looks like, whatever it feels like, you can never go down the drain.


The Hard Stuff of Real Lives

A week or so ago on Thinklings I conversed with a guy named Matthew who said he had done the whole Christianity thing with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength and didn't get anything out of it but an empty silence and a failed marriage. He poured out his story of devoting years and years to faithful pursuit of a relationship with Jesus, of studying his Bible and believing wholeheartedly in what it said, of praying daily with a fervent and devoted heart, of attending church with commitment and openness. Of begging God to take away the same-sex attraction that had been plaguing him since as long as he could remember. Matthew believed his desires were sinful and out of faithfulness did not act on them, and day after day for years and years pleaded with God to take those feelings away. He tried counseling and community. He even tried marriage to a woman. When he was finally able to come clean about his inner struggles, almost nothing he had committed himself to survived the fallout. His marriage was over. And so was his faith.

Matthew says he trusted God and tried truly, sincerely, honestly to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. He says he was repentant and obedient. But God never kept up His end of the relationship, so Matthew gave up. In his mind now, there probably is no God, but even if there is, He ain't worth having faith in. You can't have a relationship with someone you can't see or hear, he says. He tried.

What do we say to someone like Matthew? He's not alone. There are millions of folks like him. What do we say to the Matthews of the world? To the pre- and post-Christian skeptics?

I tried to say a few things as respectfully and helpfully as I could. He was asking questions, and I felt obliged to offer some answers. But I was way in over my head. I was humbled not just by the difficulty in finding "the right words" for an experience like Matthew's, but just by the very idea that a few paragraphs of "insight" in a blog comments section could adequately address, much less honor, his decades of pain and struggles.

This week, at Common Grounds Online, pastor/author Les Newsom posted about his conversation with a seeker-skeptic who wanted to know why God was hiding. Newsom is a very intelligent guy, one with a great pastoral spirit, and he was able of course to work some philosophical ju-jitsu and turn the tables on the asker. Using sound biblical insight and practically flawless logic and rhetorical eloquence, he spoke the truth that it is not God who hides, but us. It was as perfect an answer as one could provide.

Yet I'd be willing to bet it did not suddenly make the skeptic go, "Oh, yes, I see. You're absolutely right."

Words can be very, very cheap. Even the best ones. Even the truest ones. Yes, it is true that God's Word will not return void, but oh how inadequate even our best words can be in "making someone believe." The Bible says that faith cannot come without hearing, so the Church must be dedicated to preaching, but isn't it humbling -- or, at least, shouldn't it be humbling -- to know that it's not our words that work faith in a person, but God's grace?

I'm a words guy. I'm big on words. I want to make a living with my words. I try to get my words published and have had a little success. I fill up too many blogs with words. I fill up a computer file with fictional words. I speak words when I'm teaching. I speak words when I want my wife to know how I feel. I speak words when I'm caring for, instructing, or disciplining my kids.
The world is not short on words, and some of us are trying to speak as many as we think appropriate in the best way we know how.

But words don't save. The Word does.

I'm a fan of apologetics, by which I mean the system and study of providing answers and evidence in defense of the validity and truth of the Christian faith. Apologetics are helpful in evangelism. But I've never heard of anyone argued into or really even intellectually convinced into the kingdom. That can often be the first step, but it's never the only one. Jesus doesn't require we love with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength by only changing our minds. He changes the rest too.

So how do we do this? For the Matthews of the world, and for everyone else? People are looking for sound words, for true words, but mere words aren't working. That there's a new "religious" best seller on the New York Times list every few months certainly proves that. Clearly not everyone was driven to a purpose that ultimately satisfied or they would not have then latched on to finding their best life now. The Church has an abundance of words.
What else we got?

This week Michael Spencer highlighted a post from the Internet Monk archives. It is called To Know We're Not Alone, and I highly recommend you read it. Here's an excerpt:
His face comes back to me across the years, and as I think about my own brokenness, failures, and the desire for common humanity that drives me to nail my thoughts to the door of the world, I wonder if he wasn’t showing me the face of every man and woman I’ve ever met.

You see, the invitation concluded, and that preacher began talking. His words were nervous, not the sure and confident tones of the sermon, but the halting, breaking, fearful tones of the guilty confession. He wasn’t in preacher-speak. He was speaking differently. Humanly. It bothered me.

In my church, our pastor seemed super-human. He was God’s man. A Spirit-filled man. He was different than all of us. He spoke differently. He dressed in suits all the time, even on hot summer days when he was doing yard work. He knelt behind the pulpit when he prayed, even though it was a very large church. He cried and shouted in the pulpit. He declared the Word of the Lord, and pled with sinners to come to Jesus. He was an embodiment of heaven’s man on earth.

He was not like the rest of us, and we knew it.

He did laugh, but not in the same way or at the same things. His wife was saintly, and always dressed like royalty. He could be tender, but he could also be frightening. You knew he spent hours with God, and was different as a result. He was a holy man.

As a young preacher-boy, I wasn’t a thing like him. I’m not sure that I wanted to be. I had walked the aisle and “surrendered” to preach, but could I ever be like that? Holy and separate? Anointed with power? I did believe, I am sure, that being a preacher meant I would be different. God would give to me…..something. The mantle of the prophet. The fire of the preacher. A light in the darkness. I wouldn’t be like other people. I would be safe and protected.

But this evening I was looking at another preacher, not my pastor. And he was not supernatural or holy or other-worldly. He seemed small and frightened. He was talking about his wife. He’d come home, and found his wife with another man. He just said this, to the whole church, as if they must know. He wept. His fear and self-loathing oozed out of him and into the atmosphere of that revival. Everything changed.

His wife was not present, though we all looked around to see her. I was uncomfortable. I wasn’t the only one. I wanted him to stop talking. He was scaring me. Real humanity, and the mess of a broken marriage, weren’t welcome in this revival, or in my world.

He said he and his wife had a lot of trouble, and he’d been taking medicine. But the medicine hadn’t done any good. Now his wife was with another man, and he wanted the church to pray. We did not know what to do with this. It was too much. Too much. Too real . . .

. . . I did not realize until many years later what had happened that night. The preacher was calling out of his darkness, calling into a room of other people, looking for something. What? He was looking to know he was not alone. He wanted to know if anyone else knew and understood what it was like to be human, to hurt and be a failure. To have failed at marriage and now, to have failed at being a “good Christian.” Did anyone care that his life was a wreck, or would they just condemn him? Would they pray for him, or did they just want him to go away?

I have no idea what he found. In me, he found the shock that comes from being confronted with my illusions. I wanted this to be a freakish exception to the rule that God makes us all better and makes everything all right. I wanted this to be a bad dream that would go away, because I did not want to think about the waking realities of infidelity and mental illness and desperate, despairing people. I did want to think that the man standing in the pulpit with the answers might not have all the answers for himself.

My faith rejected such a vision. I thought of that preacher as a sick fool. Today, I know better. He was a window into my own soul. A picture of the human race. A representative of the our true nature. And even more, he was, for that moment a sacrament of honesty in a religion of pretense. He stood there, falling to pieces, asking, “Am I alone? Am I the only one?” But we couldn’t let the secret out. We had to say the “amen,” and go home to a religion that protects us and makes us better.

Some twenty years later, that preacher took his own life. I do not know his path, I only know that in the end, he could not live with himself.

How many times did he stand and tell others to trust in a God of love, mercy and grace? And what did we hear? Did we hear the truth….or did we hear, instead, the invitation to paint ourselves in colors of self-deception and denial, and pretend another week, another year?

Over and over, Jesus reached into the lives of people like that preacher. The last, lost, least, losers. The unacceptable, the unreformable. The failures and the frauds. Those whose lives could not be tidied up with a little cultural religion. And from that, we have constructed a Jesus who prefers the “good Christian.” A Jesus who wants moralizing and religious superficiality. A Jesus who hardly needs to die for us, because a little exhortation to do better and keep on the straight and narrow are more our style. A Jesus without a cross, but with smiles and blessings for our homes and marriages full of “Christian moral values.”

I couldn't have said it any better, and coming as it does as the result of a severe life lesson grounded in personal pains (and not just mental ruminations), I am content to have provided a lengthy excerpt of his piece at the expense of more of my blathering. ;-)

This is why the Jesus + nothing Gospel is vital. This is why a works gospel is worthless, whether its coming from a Pharisee in 1 BC, a fundy hellfire preacher in 1975, or a pomo pastor-buddy in 2006. Jesus must be the point of our work and words . . .

. . . and we must mean them. I don’t mean be sincere about them or speak them well. I mean we must mean them. And that is the missing ingredient in all of these real stories of real hurt in the real world. The real hope. Hope that is real. Not just words of hope. Yes, those too, but the authenticity, the pure religion that makes the words real. What is missing, then, is the living witness of the church. The community cannot just be about dispensing kingdom words but about living out the kingdom life and doing the kingdom work.

Will we respond to the Matthews of our community with just good advice? With some clever apologetics and airtight theology? Or with grace and relentless support and a consistent witness that we still believe this stuff and know it makes a difference and are going to keep trusting Jesus is faithful even if they won't? Will we carry on with love? Or with resentment or dismissal or avoidance? Will our testimony be desertion? Or the bearing of burdens?

The people who enter our doors and “test drive” our churches had better get more than words for their trouble. Some of them can subsist on good words for a while. But the substance of lives troubled by broken families, broken hearts, substance abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, adultery, pornography, grief over lost loved ones or prodigal children or prodigal parents, lost jobs, lost joys, secret sins and secret shames, doubt and hurt and need and guilt will not be healed by words, but by the living witness of the Body of Christ being the body of Christ to them. The friends of the crippled man didn’t just tear the roof off the sucker so their friend could hear Jesus better; they lowered him down into the middle of an astonished audience so he could be healed.

Jesus Christ came to preach the good news of the coming of the kingdom of God, and everywhere he went, he testified in word and deed to the freedom life in the kingdom gives to the hurt, lost, and lonely. If we, the community the Bible calls the Body of Christ, will be true to our namesake, we will do no less. Our open door must be like the hole in the roof of that house – the place of dramatic entry into a place of real hope for real people with real hurts.
Our churches cannot just be about giving people good advice to live their generic lives more successfully; we must be about living the Gospel in a world of hard stuff.

But prove yourselves obedient to the Message, and do not be mere hearers of it, imposing a delusion upon yourselves. But be ye doers of the word...
-- James 1:22